The Extra Pass: Behind San Antonio’s hot start and Monday’s recaps

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At least in the standings, the San Antonio Spurs are as good as they’ve ever been.

By walloping the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday, San Antonio tied their franchise best for a start to the season. The Spurs are 13-1 now and winners of 11 straight games.

What can you say? I ran out of adjectives to describe the Spurs about, oh, four years ago. They know who they are, and you know who they are.

If it’s possible, though, the Spurs have been almost more…Spurs-ish this season. Here’s a look at the numbers behind their hot start:

1. No Spurs player is averaging over 30 minutes a game right now.

I’m not sure if any team has done that over an entire season, but the Grizzlies came close in 2004, with only Pau Gasol averaging over 30 minutes a game. If you find a team that hasn’t had a single player average over 30 minutes a game, drop it in the comments and I’ll name you the Extra Pass commenter of the week or something equally free.

While you’d expect Parker to get over 30 minutes a game by season’s end, it’s still incredible that a 13-1 team is barely using their best players.

2. San Antonio’s net rating (offensive rating of points per 100 possessions minus defensive rating) is 13.9. The fourth best team in that category is the Houston Rockets. They have a net rating of 6.4.

Maybe we need to bust out some 1984 newspeak for the Spurs. They’re doubleplus good! San Antonio’s point differential is +12.1 on the season, and they’re the only team in double-digits in that category this year.

3. The Spurs lead the league in defensive rebounding percentage. Tim Duncan is having his worst rebounding year of his career so far.

The Spurs have been rolling with Duncan stuck in neutral. Duncan is shooting an uncharacteristic 38.9 percent, and per 36 minutes he’s averaging career lows in points per game, rebounds per game and free throw attempts per game. He’s been pretty bad, all things told, and it doesn’t matter.

Kawhi Leonard is quietly filling in the cracks for the Spurs. Duncan isn’t cleaning the defensive glass as well, so Leonard is rebounding at a career-high rate. Manu Ginobili’s scoring is down, so Leonard’s is up.

And he’s doing all of that while not saying a word or showing any ounce of emotion. Have you ever seen Kawhi Leonard’s teeth? You have not.

When the time comes for the Spurs to turn a new leaf, Leonard will be perfect as the new face of the franchise. Very clearly, though, that time isn’t upon us yet.

—D.J. Foster

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Celtics 96, Bobcats 86: This was an ugly game with some fairly sizable swings, and the Celtics managed to be the ones still standing when all was said and done. Each team held a lead of double digits at one point in this one, but Boston maintained control throughout the fourth to come away with the victory. Jordan Crawford had the big night for the Celtics, finishing with 21 points on 11 shots in 28 minutes of action. —Brett Pollakoff

Pacers 98, Timberwolves 84: Minnesota continued its struggles on the road, while the Pacers kept on proving that they’re one of the league’s best teams. A strong start got Indiana out to a 12-point lead in the first quarter, behind eight early points from Paul George. And then a 14-2 run to open the fourth helped Indiana pull away for its 13th win in 14 tries this season. The Pacers got big games from Paul George and George Hill who contributed 26 points apiece, while the Timberwolves shot just 29-of-89 from the field and 3-of-19 from three-point distance which ultimately doomed their chances. —BP

Pistons 113, Bucks 94: The Bucks are a complete disaster right now, and though injuries have played a part in their recent demise, the overall lack of talent on the roster is becoming painfully evident with each passing game. The Pistons have struggled themselves this season, and improved to just 6-8 with this victory. But they were able to get out to a lead of as many as 34 points against this terrible Milwaukee squad, behind 15 points and 13 assists from Brandon Jennings who was one of seven Detroit players that finished the game in double figures.—BP

Heat 107, Suns 92: Phoenix was playing its fifth straight game without Eric Bledsoe, who continues to be sidelined with a bruised shin injury. We’re not sure his presence would have mattered against the defending champs, considering LeBron James was able to pour in 35 points on just 14 shots and Dwyane Wade was similarly efficient with 21 points and 12 assists on 9-of-13 shooting. The foundation is being laid in Phoenix, however, as the effort put forth by the team along with its propensity to consistently pass up decent shots for better ones will undoubtedly pay dividends in the future.—BP

Rockets 93, Grizzlies 86: James Harden sat this one out with a sore left foot, and Marc Gasol is out for a while after suffering an MCL sprain. That meant a balanced attack from the players that were left, and it took a monster fourth quarter from Houston to come away with the victory. The Rockets outscored the Grizzlies by 15 points in the final period behind a 14-of-20 shooting effort. Omri Casspi had 11 in the fourth and Chandler Parsons had nine on 4-of-4 shooting to help Houston pull away over a Grizzlies team that fell to just 7-7 on the season.—BP

Nuggets 110, Mavericks 96: The Nuggets have swept a home against Dallas and have moved above .500 — they may be finding their groove under Brian Shaw. This was a close game for the first half then in the third quarter Ty Lawson put up 13 of his 19 on the night to pull the Nuggets ahead. Dallas made some runs in the fourth but Nate Robinson answered all of them on his way to 17 points. It was vintage Nate. Monta Ellis had 22 for Dallas and continued his run or strong play.—Kurt Helin

 Spurs 112, Pelicans 93: Imagine how good the Spurs are going to be when Tim Duncan gets going. Not to knock Duncan, his offense is off to a slow start (just 7 points in this one) but his defense seemed to bother Anthony Davis on the night and the New Orleans star to 3-of-8 shooting. The Spurs defense was on fire all night, holding the Pelicans to 38 percent shooting (and that bumped up from around 33 percent with a late little run). The Spurs did it with balance — seven players in double figures.—KH

Jazz 89, Bulls 83 (OT): This was Black Monday for the Bulls — in the morning they officially lose Derrick Rose for the season, at night they lose to the Jazz (who are now 2-14). Chicago is just struggling to create offense with Rose out (not surprisingly), Luol Deng had 24 and is the guy the Bulls went to late, but he is the only guy who can get shots consistently. Give Utah some credit too — Marvin Williams had 17, while rookie Trey Burke showed some real confidence on his way to 14 points (on 17 shots, but cut the kid some slack). —KH

Trail Blazers 102, Knicks 91: Face the fourth best offense in the NBA this young season with the struggling Knicks defense without Tyson Chandler and this was pretty predictable. Portland went on a 22-6 run that started midway through the first quarter to pull away, and the game was never really in doubt after that. Nicolas Batum had 23 points on 12 shots and along with Damian Lillard (23 points also) had his way with the Knicks defense. Carmelo Anthony had 34 points and 15 rebounds but he alone can only carry the Knicks so far.—KH

Russell Westbrook posts 35th triple-double; Thunder roll past 76ers

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Add another first for Russell Westbrook – a triple-double without missing a shot.

Westbrook recorded his 35th triple-double of the season with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder cruised to a 122-97 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.

He did so while making all six of his field-goal attempts and all six of his free throws. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no NBA player previously has had a triple-double without missing a shot attempt or free throw.

“It’s amazing, especially for a point guard, because he’s shooting threes, twos, inside, outside,” said Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter of his teammate’s perfect shooting. “For a point guard, he’s doing an unbelievable job, playing his game, having fun.”

Westbrook’s perfect shooting night could partially be attributed to a conscious decision to not shoot a 3-pointer in a game for the first time since March 14, 2016. He said he wasn’t aware during the game that he hadn’t missed a shot.

“I was just trying to play, trying to take my time,” Westbrook said. “I’ve been watching some film, trying to pick my spots better. I found ways to continue to get my teammates involved throughout the game and it just happened that way.

The Thunder have won 16 straight games against Philadelphia, a run that stretches to the 2008-09 season, the franchise’s first in Oklahoma City. That dominance was perhaps most evident in the final rebounding numbers on Wednesday: Oklahoma City 54, Philadelphia 25.

“It’s a fantastic example for our young guys on the physicality of playoff-type teams,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “That side of it to me stood out more than it has in a long time. … You look at the discrepancy on the boards, the rebounding differential, and it felt that.

“It’s a reminder. If you want to play late in April, if you want to play in May, maybe June one day, that’s the physicality that the playoffs bring.”

Nik Stauskas led the 76ers with 20 points, reaching the 20-point mark in consecutive games for the first time in his career.

After 11 lead changes in the opening minutes, the Thunder seized control with a 14-3 run near the end of the first quarter that put them ahead 29-22. Oklahoma City pushed its lead to 14 at one point before settling for a 63-50 halftime lead.

Philadelphia scored to start the third quarter, then the Thunder scored the next 15 points to build a 26-point lead and the triple-double watch intensified. Westbrook’s 10th assist came when Taj Gibson rattled in a 15-foot jumper at the 9:10 mark and the 10th rebound came with 7:08 left in the quarter.

It was the 13th time this season, and the 27th time in his career, Westbrook clinched a triple-double in the third quarter. He left the game with 2:39 left in the quarter and didn’t return.

Westbrook has recorded five triple-doubles against Philadelphia, his highest total against any NBA team. He needs six triple-doubles in Oklahoma City’s final 11 games to tie Oscar Robertson’s single-season record, set during the 1961-62 season.

Kanter posted his 17th double-double of the season for the Thunder with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Victor Oladipo (18 points) and Doug McDermott (13 points) also reached double figures for the Thunder.

TIP-INS:

76ers: Jahlil Okafor, who missed Monday’s game at Orlando with right knee soreness, started against the Thunder and played 17 minutes, scoring six points. … Dario Saric scored 12 points, extending his double-figure scoring streak to 21 games, the longest by a rookie this season. … Stauskas matched his season high with five 3-pointers, going 5-of-5 from behind the arc in the first half.

Thunder: With its 41st win of the season, Oklahoma City is assured of a .500 or better record for the eighth straight season. Only two other teams, the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, have as long a streak. … Westbrook has 72 triple-doubles and needs six more to tie Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the NBA all-time list.

SURGERY FOR EMBIID

The 76ers said before the game that rookie center Joel Embiid will undergo surgery on a torn meniscus in his left knee. Team spokesman Mike Preston said the 7-footer, who has been plagued with injuries during his professional career, will have the surgery “in the coming days.”

Brown said “there has been tremendous due diligence … and research” about the decision concerning surgery and that Embiid “took an active role” in making the decision. Brown wouldn’t say if he thought Embiid would return by the start of next season: “That’s stuff we will talk more about and learn more about.”

Embiid missed his first two NBA seasons with a foot injury. He played in 31 games this season, averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game but hasn’t played since Jan. 27, when he scored 32 points in a loss to the Houston Rockets.

QUOTABLE:

Philadelphia guard T.J. McConnell on guarding Westbrook: “It’s not a one-person job. It’s an entire team.”

 

Wilson Chandler leads Nuggets past Cavaliers, 126-113

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DENVER (AP) — Wilson Chandler scored 18 points in his return from a four-game absence with a pulled groin and provided stellar defense on LeBron James in the Denver Nuggets’ 126-113 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night.

The Nuggets bounced back from consecutive heartbreaking last-second losses to Houston with a signature win that increased their lead to 1 1/2 games over idle Portland in the race for the final playoff spot in the West.

Will Barton scored 20 points, Kenneth Faried added 17 and Jamal Murray had 15 off the bench for Denver, which also got 21 points from Gary Harris and 16 from Nikola Jokic.

Kyrie Irving led the Cavs with 33 points but James had just 18 and the two stars sat out much of the fourth quarter with Cleveland trailing by double digits.

The Nuggets took a 101-90 lead into the fourth quarter after an entertaining third quarter that included a James-fueled 15-4 run by the Cavs and a 15-3 response by the Nuggets that included nine points from Faried.

But the arena-rocking basket in the Nuggets’ big run came not from Faried but from Jokic, who backed down James during a particularly physical possession. His basket gave Denver a 99-83 lead.

Denver grabbed momentum midway through the second quarter when Murray swished three 3-pointers that gave the Nuggets a 50-40 lead.

The Nuggets doubled that cushion thanks in part to Richard Jefferson‘s face slap of Juancho Hernangomez for a flagrant foul. Hernangomez sank both free throws and then Barton swished a 3-pointer on the inbounds, capping a 7-0 spurt that gave Denver a 61-47 lead. The Nuggets pushed their lead to 69-49.

Chandler showed fresh legs and little rust in his return to action.

“He hasn’t played in 10, 11 days,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said before tip-off. “At least going into the game I feel that we have a body that can match up with LeBron’s physicality. He’s just such a versatile defender for us, so that’s going to be great to have him back.”

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: The Cavs, who fell to 18-17 on the road, had limited the Nuggets to an average of 99 points in their last three trips to the Pepsi Center, all wins. … The teams combined to miss just one free throw in the first half – by James. … Irving, who had 19 points in the first half, topped 20 points for the 19th consecutive game, extending the longest current streak in the NBA.

Nuggets: Danilo Gallinari missed his fourth straight game with a bone bruise on his left knee. … Denver already had 120 points by the time Deron Williams’ three-point play put the Cavs in triple digits at the 3:54 mark of the fourth quarter.

 

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Triangle offense will be in Knicks training camp next fall. Jeff Hornacek not sure core players will be.

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The Knicks are a train wreck this season. A lot of that falls on Phil Jackson and Knicks management: They said they wanted to be a triangle team, then hired a coach in Jeff Hornacek that wanted to coach a more open system, Jackson and company filled the roster with older, stop-gap players — Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah — who don’t really fit what Hornacek wants to do or the triangle, and all season long they bounced between the emphasizing the triangle and emphasizing a more modern offense. It’s hard to see a coherent vision, and that’s at the heart of the reasons the Knicks are going to miss the playoffs again this season. The lack of one cohesive offensive plan hurt the team, coach Jeff Hornacek has said.

Next year’s vision appears to revolve around more triangle offense.

Kristaps Porzingis says he likes the offense, and he’s on his rookie contract, so he certainly will be back. But what about Rose? Carmelo Anthony? Hornacek didn’t sound so sure when asked by Marc Berman at the New York Post.

“There’s a lot of guys who do good things,’’ Hornacek said on whether he knows whom he wants to return. “We got to make sure whoever is on the team next year, we get guys who play as hard as they can every play. The defensive intensity obviously has to be picked up for guys next year. Scoring the basketball – we have the guys who can do that – but do we have the right fit who are running the system?

“If we can think with a fresh start of training camp, going to it right off the bat, if that helps us and Phil and Steve [Mills, the GM] think the same guys on the team can have a different outlook on it, they stay the same. If not, they’ll look at other guys.”

Reports are the Knicks are going to talk to Anthony and his agent after the season about finding a trade to another team that works for everyone (you know, the way Jackson should have handled it at the deadline rather than play mind games). Anthony is no fan of the triangle, a deal likely can be worked out with the Clippers, Cavaliers, or some other spot Anthony likes.

Rose is a free agent, the Knicks can just let him walk, and if they’re running the triangle they should let him. Rose is a pick-and-roll point guard who does not fit the system.

If the Knicks can find the right free agents to come in and run the triangle remains to be seen. Some veteran players may be interested, but plenty are turned off by the offense.

LeBron James: Resting became a problem only because I’m involved

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1. The Cavaliers rested LeBron James against the Clippers on Saturday (and also sat Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love).

2. NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent a memo to teams threatening to crack down on how they rest players.

How related are those events?

LeBron, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“I love what Adam is doing for our league but I don’t see how that (would help),” James said Tuesday. “I don’t understand why it’s become a problem now, because I sit out a couple games?”

When a reporter suggested to James that Silver’s reasons for sending the memo may stretch beyond his not playing in Cleveland’s 30-point loss in a national TV game Saturday, James disagreed.

“That is the case. It’s absolutely the case,” James insisted.

And when it was mentioned that the week before, in a game that, like the Cavs’ loss to the Clippers was televised on ABC, Warriors coach Steve Kerr sat Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala from a game against the Spurs, James said: “Come on, man. You guys know the real.”

“Listen, Pop’s been doing this for 10 years, 12 years, 15 years and everybody was like, ‘You know what? That’s the smartest thing Pop has ever done,” James said. “Give his guys a couple games off and here they go and win five championships. That’s the smartest thing.’

But some of our coaches in our league don’t have the stature that Pop has and our head coach doesn’t have it so he gets killed for it. So, I got to keep winning to help my coach be able to have a reason why he can sit his players.”

Gregg Popovich resting players got the Spurs fined $250,000 in 2012. The San Antonio coach certainly hasn’t drawn universal lauding for his resting strategy.

This remains a contentious issue, and the battle lines aren’t drawn around LeBron – at least not as much as he suggests here.

The same people who praise Popovich for resting players supported Tyronn Lue (and Steve Kerr and every other coach who has rested players). The same people upset about LeBron resting were also bothered by Popovich resting players. LeBron is comparing two disparate sets of observers.

That said, there is a difference with LeBron involved.

This hasn’t taken on an enhanced profile because other coach’s lack Popovich’s stature. It’s because LeBron is such a big star.

LeBron attracts attention unlike any Spur, and when he sits, ratings suffer. The league’s TV partners dislike teams resting players, and those companies are paying enough to have their voices heard. LeBron – the NBA’s highest-profile star since Michael Jordan – resting adds urgency, but this issue has been percolating for years.

This didn’t suddenly become a problem because of LeBron. He was just the spark that turned an occasional issue into one that suddenly feels much more pressing.